Imagine an auditorium filled with people staring ahead at an empty stage. Encouraged by his friends, a young man rises from his seat and dares to climb the side stairs onto the stage. Shielding his eyes from the lights, he tentatively steps to center stage. He clears his throat and manages to croak, “I am a victim.” Heads in the audience turn on swivels to determine the appropriate response. The half-dozen people who egged their friend to the stage spring from their seats and yell “Bravo!” and vigorously applaud. Their reaction spreads like a slow wave. Soon the entire audience is on its feet and applauding. The victim’s supporters rush to join him on the stage and enjoy the rewards for bravery.
As the applause dies, a woman rises and walks to the stage. At center stage, she announces, “I am a victim as well.” She shakes the hand of the original declarant, and the applause grows to a crescendo while her friends ascend and gather around her.
The audience sees a pattern developing and continues clapping as they scan for the next declarant. Three people rise at once and move in solidarity to the stage. The audience’s reaction reaches a crescendo after all three declare their victimhood in unison.
One-by-one, victims ascend the stage and then accept the audience’s rewarding roar along with congratulations from others on the stage. But before long, the applause dwindles. Instead of a rush of sound when someone mounts the stage, individual claps and shouts can be heard.
Eventually, someone with a particularly entitled demeanor climbs onto the crowded stage and declares her victimhood, which the audience acknowledges with a polite clap before sitting down. When the next victim carries a more humble attitude, the applause is enough of a distraction for many in the audience to gather their coats and duck for exits.
This goes on until the stage and stairs are cramped and one remaining person quietly sits in the audience. His name is Herb. The stage crowd notices him, and they shout “We are victims! Come join us!” Herb rises from his seat and moves to the aisle. He faces the stage for a moment then turns and exits. Someone on the stage says, “He must have had an easy life,” and those within earshot nod and murmur, “Yep, easy life, privileged.”
Outside of the auditorium, Herb finds his car and heads for home. His thoughts turn to the victim stage and how he once felt so comfortable and supported there. It was shortly after he left a toxic relationship, leaving him deeply in debt. On top of that he’d just lost his job and chronic pain from a health issue left him depressed and his energy zapped. Herb remembers how the stage gave him a respite from the storm, a place to gather strength and improve choices. Herb smiles when he remembers how leaving the stage for the first time resulted in his immediate return. Only after several attempts was he able to move on and stay away. The final stanza of William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus comes to mind as Herb pulls to the curb and slides his key into his front door.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
As an abuse survivor, I played several roles in the victim stage scenario. For years, I was the audience member who quietly left when noise gave me cover. I was in denial and avoided calling attention to myself or to the abusive actions I accepted. Instead of confronting the reality of abuse, I minimized or explained it away. My abuser even had me convinced that I was the true abuser and didn’t deserve better treatment. When I once remarked to a friend that the abuser was treating me better, she said, “Great, you only have one elephant sitting on your chest rather than two.”
Once I left the abuser for good, I climbed onto the victim stage and made myself comfortable. The support of others and tender care for myself helped me lick my wounds and recover. The recovery had no timeline and only seemed to progress by repeatedly telling my story to family, old friends, new friends, counselors, and advocates. When new victims mounted the stage, I gained strength by helping them. When I ventured too far from the comforting environment of the victim stage, I found myself repeating old patterns like entertaining unhealthy relationships or rationalizing away poor treatment from others.
Eventually, I learned to be Herb. By clarifying my needs and desires and embracing my human qualities, I became strong enough to leave the victim stage behind. The victim title no longer helped me, so I called myself a target of abuse. I redefined my story in terms of the con artist and a mark or even a battle for control. Shifting from the victim stage helped me discover that I choose who wields control over me. My choices make me the master of my fate, the captain of my soul.